Written in response to writing prompt: For a Stranger.
Written in response to writing prompt: For a Stranger.
Almost all writers hear voices. For some writers, the voices are conversational; they speak directly to the writer and serve as weather gauges. “I would never do that” or “How did this happen?” I think of those kinds of voices as being like Method actors – they won’t do anything they think is out of character and they can be surprisingly stubborn and willful. I don’t get actors in my head. The closest I’ve ever gotten is a character refusing to show up. No matter how I started the story, he refused to be part of it. Never said a thing, just wouldn’t show up. I had to recast the story to get it done.
In my head, the voices generally aren’t talking to me. You know those stories about people who got radio transmissions over their tooth fillings? My characters are more like that. While I’m brushing my teeth, they may suddenly start talking, having a conversation or even an argument that goes on like the sound on a television in another room. Unless they say something really interesting, I usually don’t pay attention to them. For me, writing a story is usually about getting an idea, hearing a snippet of something and watching as a character forms and starts doing something. I may know generally where he’s going, but the method of getting there is usually up to him. But occasionally, I hear a voice start talking and it just continues. Like a trance channeler, I pick up a pen or start typing, transcribing what I hear. Unlike most of my fictional characters, I don’t know anything about these people before they tell me and I’m always mildly surprised by what they say. This story is one of those.
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Mrs. Padesky, 1978
I was a dancer in a previous life. I know, because everybody says how I’m so graceful, considering how big I am and everything. Anyway, that Mrs. Wiggins on the next block, she said I was too, and she should know because she makes her living out of telling people about their past lives and all. That and her social security check. Anyway, she says I was a dancer once.
Do you believe in past lives? I do. Mr. Padesky – that’s my husband – Mr. Padesky don’t. But he’s so fond of me that he don’t interfere, although if he didn’t want me to go down to Mrs. Wiggins, I wouldn’t. Man’s got to be the boss of the family, I think. There can only be one boss if things are going to work right and it oughta be the man. That’s the way I come up, and I never had a reason to change my mind.
It’s hard sometimes, though. A man don’t always understand like he should, you know? Well. Well, I’m very artistic – painting and everything. I decorated the house myself and those ceramics – the ones with the plants in them – I painted those myself. Took a class at this plaster shop. I really liked it. Enjoyed picking out what I was going to do next and mixing the colors and painting. I had to stop, though. They changed the class time to evenings, and I had to be home to make supper. I’m going to take a macramé class now. Over at the crafts store. Friend of mine wanted to take a cooking class over to the college. French cooking. Didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I don’t think I’d be interested in that. All those funny vegetables they use and things like snails and all. Plain cooking is what I like. My mother taught me. And I don’t think Mr. Padesky would like it, either. But I think I’ll like the macramé class. I always wanted one of those hanging planters like they have at the flea market at the old drive-in movie place, but it seemed like a lot of money for a planter. Now I’ll be able to make my own.
Mr. Padesky sometimes laughs at me because I’m all the time working on some artistic type thing. Says I’m wasting my money on making a lot of junk, but I know he don’t mean it. I told him, I says, “Everybody should have a hobby, and mine’s making pretty things.” I tried to get him interested in a hobby, but had to give it up. Mr. deSalle, over to the next street, he makes furniture. Bookcases and such. I thought Mr. Padesky might like making furniture. Something pretty but something useful. We both like that. So I talked to him about it and he said he worked all day making things and what did he want to come home and make more things for?
Sometimes it’s hard, being an artistic type. I got a need to make pretty things. Mr. Padesky, he don’t understand that, but he’s fond of me, so he don’t interfere. After supper’s over and the dishes done, that’s when I get to work on my things. I got a room of my own to work in, now. It used to be my daughter’s room, but she’s married with her own house and a baby coming. On her wedding day, I was standing in her room, thinking about how empty it was going to be without her, and Mr. Padesky come up and patted me on the back and told me to stop blubbering. “She ain’t dying,” he said. “Get hold of yourself.” I just had to laugh. Just like I’m doing now, remembering it. He was a little sad himself, you know, but he didn’t want to say so. ‘Course, he was right, and that’s when I decided I’d make it over into my work room – like an artist studio. Mr. Padesky was all for it. Said it would keep my junk out of his garage, so he was all for it.
After supper then, I work on my projects. Right now I’m making a quilted photo album for my daughter and the baby. After I learn how to macramé, I’m going to make her one of those cradles that hangs from the ceiling. Not that I want her to put the baby in that. I wouldn’t trust it to put the baby in. No, Mr. Padesky and myself, we’re buying her a real crib. But the macramé crib I saw at the crafts store where I’m taking the class, it’s so pretty. It’s all done in white and pink yarn or rope or whatever, with little beads that look like baby blocks, and teddy bears and things in it. I thought she could use it for storing diapers or toys or something. No, we’re going to give them a real crib for the baby. I feel kind of bad about it having to be new, though. When my daughter – we were only blessed with the one child – when she was old enough for a bed, I loaned the crib to a neighbor who was carrying. And be darned if she didn’t up and move away and take it with her while we was on vacation. I used to insist we go somewhere once a year, do something as a family, give our daughter something to write about after summer’s over and she’s back in school, you know? Anyway, this woman moved while we were gone and took the crib with her. Isn’t that something? Mrs. Wiggins said she might have been a thief in another life and don’t seem to have learned her lesson. So my first grandchild will have to have a new crib instead of being able to use the one his mother used. I feel bad about that, but cryin’ over it won’t change a thing.
Oh goodness, look at the time! I just had to run down to the store for Mr. Padesky’s beer. Tell you the truth, I was workin’ on that scrapbook for the new baby – I’ve been a little worried it wouldn’t be done in time; my daughter’s due any minute – so I was working on the scrapbook instead of going to the store and time just got away from me. Can’t imagine what Mr. Padesky would say if he came home from work and there was no beer. I best be getting along.
It was awfully nice to meet you, and welcome to the neighborhood. When you have time, maybe you can go on by the craft store. If you’re artistic, you might want to take a class and I might see you there. Wouldn’t that be nice? Alright now, you take care. Hope to see you again. Now where did I leave the car? Oh, there it is. Okay then, bye-bye. Now where did I put my keys? Bye-bye.
She sang in the mornings, but her evenings were dark and lonely. Curled in a corner by the bed, she shivered until early light put its fingers underneath the blinds and dragged pale stripes across the wooden floors. What was she, she wondered, that every night her bed lay empty? Why did she need to be bereft of the warm covers? She put her dog to bed every night – lifted the fleece blankets so that he could crawl under the cool sheets and round himself into a comfortable ball. For herself though, it was the foam pad covered in plaid that sat in the corner of her bedroom, tangled with a flannel blanket that she could not force herself to lay across her shoulders. In her footie pajamas of dancing polar bear fabric, she sat upright on the dog’s bed, leaning against a pillow propped up against the wall. And shivered. And slept fitfully.
She could have left a light on, but she did not.
She could have used an electric blanket, but she did not.
She could have slept in the bed, but…
In her tiny apartment, she sang in the mornings. She made breakfast for herself and her dog. She washed dishes, she vacuumed floors, she wrote poetry to the birds in the yard, eating the seed she put out for them.
In the afternoon, she shopped. She said hello and smiled at people. She came home and put away the shopping. She ate lunch. She read. She wrote more poetry and wrote music for it. She talked to her mother on the phone.
She sat in her chair and looked out of the window at the shadows slowly crawling towards her. She watched the news. She walked the dog, then fed him and herself. She read.
And this was her life. Pleasant and warm around her the way a shawl of fine, fine mohair was pleasant and warm; light, so light that she barely knew it was there.
But at night, it was heavy. Heavy and suffocating. When she fell asleep, her head against the pillow against the wall, she would often wake up with her breath lodged in her throat as though it was a solid thing that she had not chewed well enough. Shiver. Sleep. Startle. The rhythm of her nights. Shiver. Sleep. Startle. Bone-crushingly cold in a way that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room and everything to do with something she could not identify. And unidentified, it lingered.
What would she give to sleep again in her bed? She never knew because she never asked.